31st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Mal 1:14-2:2,8-10; 1 Thess 2:7-9,13; Mt 23:1-12
Faithfulness to God’s covenant, honorary titles and humble service are some of the phrases that help us to capture the message of this Sunday. The readings invite us to a deeper awareness of the need for humble service and authentic Christian life. There is no room for arrogant leadership, idolatry and hypocrisy. In the first reading from the prophet Malachi, God gives the strongest warning to the religious leaders for their failure to be faithful to God’s covenant. They have not only been personally unfaithful, but they have also misled and misguided the people they were called to lead. As we listen to this passage, we realise how relevant it is even today. These strong words clearly accuse those who fail to live up to their responsibilities of Christian leadership. By contrast, in the Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul presents himself as a model of Christian leadership. He is eager not only to hand over the Good News to the people of Thessalonica, but also ready to hand over his life, a sign of total commitment. The passage is a reminder of how Paul worked tirelessly for the sole purpose of letting the Gospel message take root in the communities he founded.
In the Gospel from Matthew, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for using the titles of rabbi, father and teacher. These were religious leaders who insisted on being addressed by their proper titles, such as Rabbi or Master. There are four reasons why this Gospel passage needs to be well understood. 1) Based on this passage, some Christians have taken it out of context and said that no one should be called father, not even the priests. 2) The reason why Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees is that while they sought to be called father, their actions fell short of coming close to what was expected of a spiritual father to the people. They simply did not deserve such a title. 3) Jesus argues that we have one Father, one God who created them us all. Therefore as followers Christ we belong to the one family of God who makes us one, for we have “one teacher”, and we “are all brothers” with “one Father” and one “master, the Christ”. 4) Jesus cautions his followers regarding the use such honorary titles: master, father, and teacher, because they can become symbols of idolatry. Let me explain. If I make a person more important than God, I am treating the person as an idol. To use Jesus' example, someone might be a good teacher. You feel like you could just sit and listen to him all day! But the question is: Does that teacher lead you to himself/herself or to something beyond? A good teacher does not make a student dependent. Rather, he or she teaches the student the best habits of learning, methods of inquiry, a sense of wonder and imagination. Those things can lead a student to a love of learning. The love of learning can eventually lead a person closer to God. What Jesus teaches about titles must not be taken literally, otherwise we will be unable to use the terms, doctor, master or teacher in ordinary usage of life. The main point Jesus makes is that we must not hide behind our titles, our clerical or religious garbs. Sure they are symbols of honour and respect, but those who bear these titles and symbols have the obligation for greater humility. They must never insist on them. Therefore Jesus cautions us on the misuse of titles for mere showing off and arrogance. That is why He repeats His teaching on humility: whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted. St Augustine captured this meaning in saying, there is something in humility that exalts the mind, and something in exaltation that abases it (cf. The City of God, 14.13). In a similar way St. Benedict speaks of “a ladder of humility” by which we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility (cf. Rule 7.7). So what message do we take home this Sunday? 1) In the first reading, God gives the strongest warning to religious leaders for their failure to be faithful to God’s covenant. 2) In the Gospel, Jesus teaches us to be aware that honorary titles such as master, father, and teacher can become symbols of idolatry and an obstacle to true humility. 3) The bottom line is that true holiness is found in humility rather than in titles or external symbols. Think about it!
©2011 John S. Mbinda